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Time to Panic – Part 2 – Tipping

When talking about global warming, scientists speak of “tipping points“. I suspect the average citizen has a cognitive grasp of the concept, but is light years away from a deeper understanding of a tipping point in this context – the “gestalt” so to speak. But if we are to avoid the annihilation of the human race, it is critical that main street America, including Joe the Plumber, gain a deeper understanding of tipping points. Once you witness one for the global climate, it’s probably too late to survive it.

There are tipping points all around us. They generally don’t carry the consequence of a global warming tipping point or you probably wouldn’t be here to read this. A tipping point is generally approached in what appears to be a very gradual fashion, frequently without any notice that you’re getting close to it. When you get there, however, you’ll know it. The problem is you generally can’t reverse it. You can’t go back. If you didn’t want to go there, you’ve got a serious problem because you no longer have the option of return even if you’re wearing Dorothy’s red shoes.

Even if you didn’t take chemistry in high school, you may have seen a dramatic little demonstration where a chemical named phenolphthlalein is mixed with water in a glass container. The contents of the container are swirled as the person performing the demonstration slowly adds drops, one by one, of a liquid that reduces the level of acidity. As each drop is added onlookers wait in anticipation, but nothing happens. Finally, with the addition of only one more drop, the color of the liquid suddenly turns brilliant red.

Slowly, gradually, drop by drop, conditions change until in an instant, the liquid appears to be completely different. You might view this as an example of a “tipping point”. It is not. Here’s why. Dramatic as the demonstration may have been, you can add a single drop of a strong acid to counteract the effect of the previous drop and the solution instantly returns to its state as crystal clear. If it were this easy to reverse conditions in the environment, we could continue to party right up to the day of reckoning, sober up, take a step back and everyone would live happily ever after.

A tipping point in the world of global warming isn’t nearly so neat and tidy. The previous example is similar to a true tipping point in that there was a long period where an action appeared to have no significant effect and suddenly there was a dramatic change. The difference is that with a true tipping point, once the change occurs, there’s no return.

Who hasn’t been on a roller-coaster? You gradually, slowly climb up the tracks until you reach the highest point on the ride. In an instant, you’re careening wildly down the tracks, screaming and doing everything in your power to keep your hot dog and cotton candy where you put them before getting on the ride. You have just experienced a tipping point. There’s no going back. You can only hope that when you finally arrive you’re alive and not covered with the hot dogs and cotton candy of your friends in the car in front of you.

I used to work for a company that made explosives like detonating-cord, gelatin explosives and even good old fashioned dynamite. We would slowly and very, very carefully make nitroglycerine in a lead vat (lead doesn’t produce sparks like other metals and it helped keep us from reaching the tipping point sooner than we wished). We would slowly and carefully transport the nitroglycerine to what we called “packing houses” where people would mix it with ground up almond shells and pack it into paper cylinders labeled “Dynamite”. We were intentionally getting these materials very close to their tipping points. With the application of a little heat in the form of a fuse or sadly in some cases, with a sharp impact, the dynamite would reach its tipping point. Trust me; you weren’t going to put it back together once that happened.

Another graphic example of a tipping point was named “Little Boy” and was delivered by “Enola Gay“. The unfortunate residents of Hiroshima, Japan witnessed a major tipping point in 1945. In the world of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, everything seems to be just fine as you gradually approach “critical mass”. At that point, the reaction becomes self-sustaining. You’ve reached a tipping point. Tipping points can lead to mushroom clouds. And you can’t put things back together after that.

Tipping points are common. When you drop the wine glass and it shatters into a thousand pieces, you’ve reached a tipping point. But you can just go buy another wine glass. I’m afraid we can’t just go buy another planet.

We are unarguably moving toward major tipping points on our planet. We can guess, but we can’t be certain what they are or when we’ll reach them. No doubt some lurk as yet unnoticed. Will the massive melt of polar ice alter the cartography of the oceans and coastlines such that at some instant in time, as in the phenolphthalein example above, a sudden massive change occurs and a major ocean current changes direction? In an instant we would see monumental changes in climate, food supply, shipping, and the world economy. It’s not out of the question.

Is there a certain concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that like the phenolphthalein example above causes irreversible changes in the delicate energy balance on the planet such that we experience a runaway increase in global temperatures? Again, it’s not out of the question. Scientifically, it’s not only possible, but reasonable that some critical variable like temperature could increase by one degree in ten years, one degree more in ten more years and then suddenly twenty degrees in two years. I’m not saying this is what will happen; no one is predicting such a catastrophic event, but it isn’t out of the question.

A tipping point might signal its arrival with the death of a frog, the disappearance of beehive or the death of a whale on a beach. Hindsight isn’t an option on this one. We’ve got to look ahead. We’ve never walked down this path before. This is all new scenery.

Understanding tipping points is essential to an understanding of the current global climate crisis. If Humpty Dumpty had a little better grasp of tipping points he might be here today to tell his story. But as you know, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” If we sleep through this crisis, we’ll have a lot more than egg on our face.


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